USIP is closely following the effects of the novel coronavirus around the world and we’re particularly concerned about its effects in fragile states and conflict zones, which are especially vulnerable to the impacts of these kinds of outbreaks. This week, our Sarhang Hamasaeed looks at three of the major ways this crisis is affecting Iraq: its politics, its security, and its relationships with Iran and the United States.

Hello, I'm Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. As the coronavirus has been spreading around the world, we have been monitoring its effects, especially in fragile states and conflict zones where displaced populations and refugees are in a particularly vulnerable situation. In this brief video, I'll talk about Iraq and how the coronavirus affected Iraq's political situation, the state of conflict and peace there, and tensions between the United States and Iran. 

So first question is how the pandemic affected the political situation in Iraq. 

It has greatly affected the political situation by pushing the demonstrators off the street, those who have been in Baghdad and the south of Iraq demanding reform and better jobs and services and an improvement in their overall conditions in Iraq. And that relieves the pressure on the political class, but the political class - and to respond to JP's questions on the constitution - they have tried to remain in the constitutional process, so that Iraq now has a third attempt at forming a government. On April 9, President of Iraq Barham Salih tasked Mr. Mustafa al-Kadhimi to form a government and he has 30 days to do that. Should he be successful, his first task would be to respond to the immediate need of the COVID-19 crisis and also respond to the demands of the demonstrators, deal with the U.S.-Iran tensions, the continued threat of ISIS, and many more complex issues. 

To the second question, to ask basically ourselves, is that how has the conflict affected the state of peace and security in Iraq? And there is the positive and the negative in how we answer this question. In a sense of a positive, and also to respond to Sirwan's question about the KRG-Baghdad dynamics, is that there it brought a common purpose that's not exactly like ISIS, but in a similar way, this is a common enemy that gave people a common purpose, and there are ways where there is collaboration, whether in terms of medical and security and procedural coordination between the KRG and the government in Baghdad, or the people helping each other out.

So that has been good; however, on the other side, the COVID-19 crisis is coming at an environment where there was a deficit of trust between the people and the state and the political class. And so that's why, as in many societies where the pandemic was not taken seriously, the Iraqi people did not necessarily trust that their political leaders would be able to respond to this pandemic closely, or they did not heed the advice and the instructions for people to go home and exercise social distancing. So, the government had to put in stricter measures of curfews and bring in the police and other security resources to enforce that. 

The COVID-19 crisis is coming at an environment where there was a deficit of trust between the people and the state and the political class.

But moving forward, this will be a continued challenge for Iraq because now they have the additional complication: the drop in oil prices that Iraq has less resources to deal with ongoing issues, and now COVID-19 has just been added. So as this challenge continues, social pressure on the government will continue just for economic reasons, let alone the continued need of reconstruction in areas liberated from ISIS. And if the government becomes unavailable, unable to pay public servants, that will just complicate the situation even more. 

On the question of U.S.-Iran tensions in Iraq: the coronavirus has basically resulted in both countries being more inwardly-focused to deal with their own pandemic situation. However, that did not stop both of them from signaling publicly and privately that they continue to pursue their interests and objectives in Iraq. For the U.S., they want to limit Iranian influence and limit the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces and a variety of other issues. On the Iranian side, they want the U.S. troops out, limit the U.S.' role and strengthen the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces and others. So these tensions will continue. The U.S. has consolidated its troops in a smaller number of bases due to changing circumstances, out of protection due to the coronavirus, and also an adjustment of the mission as things go forward. Strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States has been set for June of this year, so that would be a great opportunity for the two countries to work their through their issues through dialogue. 

On the role of the international community, it is really important for that to continue. Before COVID-19, Iraq needed a lot of help from the international community for political reform, for dealing with its governance issues, and rebuilding in areas after ISIS. That need has been compounded, and the role of the international community, through technical expertise in the response to the pandemic, but also on the political space to address the grievances of the people will remain to be important. 

In the end, I would like to thank you for your great questions and engagement with this video on social media. Please continue the discussion through the #COVIDandConflict hashtag and check out the USIP website, usip.org, for more resources on Iraq and the pandemic in other conflict zones.

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